Gabriel Jesus enjoyed, by any metric, a match winning display in Seville on Tuesday evening. A sensational assist (there are assists and there are assists, this was an assist) and an outstanding goal helping Arsenal on their way to a satisfying 2-1 away win in Spain. It continued the player’s love affair with the Champions League, where his goal scoring record is excellent.
He has 23 goals in 41 Champions League appearances for Manchester City and Arsenal and he has scored in each of the Gunners’ group stage games so far this season. Jesus’ consistent XG underperformance has been, at once, a punchline and a source of mystery during his career (I covered some of my theories over his inconsistent finishing in this piece last season).
There is also a spillover from his eye-catching season at Palmeiras, where he scored four goals in five appearances in the Copa Libertadores. Jesus’ rise coincided with a time when I covered Brazilian football and, while his performances in a Brasileirão winning Palmeiras team caused genuine excitement, it was the Copa Libertadores that really lit the blue touch paper.
Palmeiras did not have a good Copa Libertadores campaign that season; but the teenage Jesus did. I vividly recall watching him in a make-or-break group stage tie away at Rosario Central, one of the most hostile grounds in Argentina. Palmeiras had to win and Jesus scored twice and then got himself sent off in a 3-3 draw. It was an absolutely electric display (and not always for the right reasons) and set him out as one of the most fearless forwards in the world, relishing the jeopardy and hostility of a must win tie in Argentina and, in the end, relishing it a little too much.
The real curiosity is that Jesus’ 27 goals in continental competitions have emerged from an XG of 20.0. His 63 Premier League goals since 2017-18 have come from an XG of 77.5. There is something about continental competition that transforms his finishing- the one area of his game that you feel stops him from being one of the top 3-5 strikers in the world.
One of the things that makes Jesus endlessly fascinating as a striker is that he is basically excellent at every single element of the game except for finishing, arguably the most important for a centre-forward. Jesus was not trained as a centre-forward in youth football. He was an inside forward operating on the left, his childhood hero was Robinho and that was who he modelled his game on.
Jesus became a striker by chance because Palmeiras’ regular centre-forwards Dudu and Alecsandro were injured in early 2016 and their coach, Cuca, decided to try Jesus through the middle and it worked incredibly well. But I think that’s why Gabi sometimes lacks that absolutely killer instinct in the penalty area, he started late in life.
I think you see an inside forward’s instinct in his finishing too. Because when he shoots from half-spaces, or wider positions, his finishing is very strong. The goal against Sevilla is a case in point. He starts out wide, cuts in and bends the ball into the top corner. That’s a wide forward’s goal. It was the same in Lens when he shoots brilliantly across the goalkeeper from the half space, Nicolas Anelka style. His first Arsenal goal calls to mind this tendency, too.
Here, he collects the ball out wide, interplays with Martinelli and then bends the ball into the far corner from the half space. That is a sweeter spot for him, in finishing terms, than the centre of the goal where he sometimes lacks composure and finesse. Look at this example from the recent draw with Tottenham, where he nicks the ball from Maddison on the edge of the area.
In this scenario, he loses his composure a touch and laces the ball over the bar. This is an issue with Jesus’ finishing in central areas, he is not one for finesse, generally speaking. Because he has a winger’s muscle memory, he favours power or curve and those flourishes tend to be more suited from wider angles.
There is, I think, another reason he prefers finishing from those half space areas. Most clinical centre-forwards rely on their ability to get into space, to find nooks and crannies away from defenders. Haaland, Aguero and Aubameyang, for example, pride themselves on finding a yard and finishing in peace. Jesus does not want peace (that sentence could look amusing out of context).
He thrives in crowd scenes; he wants to collide with opponents. He relishes small spaces where he can face up a defender and try to dribble past them. One of the reasons he really is suited to the centre-forward role is because, outside the penalty area, he loves the physical aspect of being a striker, as we saw for his ingenious assist for Martinelli on Tuesday.
It’s not just the feints and the turns, he likes backing into players, competing for aerial balls and generally getting bashed and bruised. It’s why I think he sometimes can look a little lost when presented with time and space in the area. He does his best work when he doesn’t have time and space. He calls to mind the lyric from the Bjork song Alarm Call: ‘the less room you give me, the more space I have got.’
His result clinching goal against Manchester United is, I think, a case in point. If that is a simple one-on-one with the goalkeeper from the moment he collects the ball, I think there’s a fair chance he misses or the goalkeeper thwarts him. But because Diogo Dalot is making up the ground to get back, he gets to sit a defender on his backside before applying the finish and that’s what ignites his instincts.
His aphrodisiac, as a forward, is seeing that defender in his eyeline, hearing his breath, glimpsing the whites of his eyes. I think that is much more comfortable for him than seeing the whites of the goalkeeper’s eyes and the inviting net. It’s why I think he has missed seven of the 13 penalties he has taken in his professional career.
If the penalty involved some kind of small assault course, or a row of ravenous, angry bears between the ball and the goal, his record would likely be better. This is who Gabriel Jesus is, he likes to feel the blade pressed up against his neck before he springs into life. It can make him a frustrating finisher when the getting is good; but it makes him a captivating, effervescent centre-forward for Arsenal.
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